March 3, 2010

Matt's Mailbag: March 3, 2010

Peter asks: I have followed the Padres since I was eight and am a true fan. How did it feel to make your Major League debut?

Matt answers: I've been asked this question numerous times over the last year or so and I usually give the same response.

Most guys will tell you when asked this question that it was a dream come true and something that they had been working towards their whole life. While this is absolutely true, I want to go a bit more in depth about everything that happened leading up to my debut and my feelings about that day.

Playing in the Major Leagues is something I hoped would happen since I was a little kid. When I was younger I loved two sports, hockey and baseball.

For most of my life I wanted to be a center in the NHL, or a shortstop in the MLB. I always had a dream as a young kid of playing in the big leagues, but I'm not sure I ever really thought that dream would one day come true. Millions of young kids play baseball all around the world, and they all dream about one day playing in a big league stadium, however the smallest percentage of them ever end up doing so.

My big league call-up was actually nothing like the way I had envisioned it happening.

In 2007 I was stationed in Double-A San Antonio, playing the absolute best baseball of my life. It was the first time in my baseball career that I could actually picture myself playing in the Major Leagues.

I remember our GM coming into town to watch a few players who could potentially get a call-up for the stretch run and thinking to myself that my debut could be right around the corner. I ended up going into a slump the last few weeks of our season and didn't end up getting that call. Although I was upset that I didn't do well enough to get a chance that year, I felt that it just wasn't my time. I had just turned 22 during that season and it was my first year playing 2nd base.

The truth is I still needed a lot of improvement if I wanted to be a Major League 2nd baseman.

I entered the 2008 season at Triple-A Portland, Oregon. Going into that season I was planning on having the biggest and best year of my life. I felt that if I played the type of baseball I knew I was capable of playing, I would receive a promotion a few months into the season.

During that off-season I had worked out harder than ever before and entered spring training weighing 220 pounds. I honestly felt I was going to be a 220 pound, power hitting, base stealing second baseman. The previous year I hit 21 home runs and wanted to hit 30 this time around.

Anyone that has followed my career knows that things didn't exactly go according to plan. I started the year hitting around .200 and it only got worse as the year went on. August 1st rolled around and my average was around .180 with thoughts of a call-up all but thrown down the drain. It was the first time in my life in which I played a full season of either high school, college, or pro ball and hit under .300. Only this time around I was hitting under .200.

I'm not really sure what happened or why I didn't play well that year.

My swing wasn't working the way I wanted it to and I started to make a little change here, and a little change there. After a few months I had literally forgot how to swing. I wasn't just having trouble hitting in games, I was actually having trouble hitting in batting practice too. You could even put a ball on a tee and I would find a way to make the task of hitting a stationary ball look difficult. I usually look at things with the belief that,"everything happens for a reason", and maybe it just wasn't my time to play in the big leagues.

That August I went back to the drawing board, dissecting my swing, tearing it apart, and trying to put it back together. I was mentally beaten down and physically drained, and I couldn't take the striking out, the pop-ups, or the ground balls to 3rd anymore.

For the first few months of the season I thought that one day I would wake up and realize everything was just a dream. It took me about four months before I came to the realization that this in fact wasn't a nightmare, but stone cold reality. I started to spend many hours each night watching video of my swing with my roommate Shawn Wooten, at that time a 36 year-old veteran catcher who had won a World Series ring with the Anaheim Angels.

Shawn has a great eye for hitting and was a huge help to me that season. I would literally grab a broom stick, or anything in the room that resembled a baseball bat, and re-construct my swing from the ground up with his help. If he didn't end up getting traded to us during that year from the Mets, and wasn't my roommate during the end of that season, I don't know if I would have ever figured my swing out.

With his help I ended up hitting almost .300 with 5 home runs that last month of the season. The first four months of the season I hit around .180 with 2 home runs. Two days before the season ended I was playing a game in Tacoma, Washington when I was called into our manager's office and told to sit down.

I knew that usually when this happens you have either gotten called up or released, and I didn't think at 23 years old I was getting the "ax". Our manager told me that I would be flying out the next morning to make my Major League debut in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. I honestly didn't believe him when he told me.

I thought it was actually a joke to see if I was stupid enough to think a guy that just hit .213 in Triple-A would get a call-up. It wasn't a joke, and I was going up the next day.

Like I said earlier, I want to be honest with you about what went through my head when I got the news.

In a lot of ways I didn't think I deserved the shot. There were guys on my team that had great years, much better years than me with the bat, that wouldn't be getting the privilege of putting on a big league uniform that September. I usually don't mention other people's names on here, but for this one time I will.

We had a guy on the team, a friend of mine, Peter Ciofrone. The guy had one of the best years I had seen since becoming a professional. He was sent to Portland around May and ended up hitting around .320 with like 16 home runs.

The first thing that actually ran through my head when I got the news was that Pete didn't get called up, and I really wished he was also getting an opportunity, because he deserved it.

The second thing that came to my mind was gratitude.

I was extremely grateful that the Padres had stuck by me and still gave me a chance to get my shot at what I had always wanted. They could have easily sent me down to Double-A when I started the season slow around .200, or when July rolled around and my average dipped below the Mendoza Line, but they stuck by me and kept writing my name in the lineup everyday.

The third thing that came to my mind was the hard work I had put in and the sacrifices my family and I had made the past ten to fifteen years to get to where I was.

Although my call up didn't turn out the way I thought it would, I had still achieved one of the goals I had set for myself years before. I had put in thousands of hours of practice, spent hundreds of days away from my home, family, and friends, and dedicated day after day all year round to lifting weights, running, eating right, and taking care of my body, all for the ultimate goal of playing in the Major Leagues.

My parents and family had driven me around to practices all over the state, spent thousands of dollars on traveling teams, and flew to all parts of the country to give me the best opportunities to continue to improve as a player. I was just really appreciative of all the sacrifices they had made as well. All that work had paid off, but much more work will have to be done to be the player I really want to be.

I flew out of Seattle the next morning headed to L.A. for my first game. When I walked onto the field at Dodger Stadium and the lights came on, the national anthem ended, and the first pitch was thrown, it was game time and it really never registered that I was about my make my Major League Debut.

I honestly thought it was going to feel a lot different than it did. I'm not going to lie, I was more nervous about the start of this game than I had been at the beginning of any other game in my life, but it still kind of felt like another baseball game to me.

I didn't get up in the top of the 1st, so my first action would be at second base in the field. The first batter of the game for the Dodgers was Russell Martin and he hit a hard ground ball at me. As soon as I made that play and threw to first for the out I felt a rush of calmness come over me. From that point on I felt that I could just play baseball.

The next inning I came up to bat against future Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux.

On a 1-1 count I got a fastball out over the plate and hit a line drive to center field, one of the cooler moments of my life and something I will never forget. After the game I showered up, went out for a bite to eat with my family, and headed back to my hotel.

Like I usually do when I get home after a game I laid in bed and flipped on Sportscenter. After a few minutes the Padres vs. Dodgers highlights came on. It showed a few shots of Manny Ramirez driving in a run, Greg Maddux striking a guy out, and a Jonathan Broxton pitch grounded to short for the last out of the game hit by me.

That was the moment it actually hit me that I had played in a Major League game.

Matt Antonelli is a second baseman in the San Diego Padres farm system. Do you have a question for Matt? Drop him an email at mattantonelli9@gmail.com or here in the comments section!


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